By Kelly Louiseize
Worried Cochrane residents have raised red flags about the current and future treatment of passenger rail service in the region.
In a letter to the Honourable Jim Wilson, Minister of Northern Development and Mines and Honourable Frank Klees, Minister of Transportation, Cochrane resident and business owner Stephen Prasad expressed his concerns on the fate of the rail service in the Cochrane area.
"What is their intention," Prasad asks of Canadian National (CN) during an interview with Northern Ontario Business.
"There is a two-, four- sometimes six-hour delay (in service)," Prasad says. "The way (the rail company) is doing it, (the passenger service) is going to be dropped."
Prasad is referring to time delays that have taken place from North Bay to Toronto. He says the scheduled passenger train left Cochrane and North Bay on time; however, it was four hours late coming into the Toronto train station.
The problem, he says, stems from passengers rail services from North Bay to Toronto. The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) owns the rails from north of North Bay, however, once the train enters into the North Bay station the tracks to Toronto become Canadian National's property. This is where the delays occur, Prasad says.
Judy Cardoni, manager of communication and public affairs for ONTC, says sometimes delays happen.
"At some point (when) you get behind in the schedule, you would cancel a segment so that you could get back on schedule," Cardoni explains.
In addition, the Ontario Northland Railway in an effort to drum up more riders introduced half-price fairs only to cancel the marketing initiative for the first two days.
" (CN) have their trains running on that line as well, and typically they are all freight trains for CN," she explains.
"The (trains) may be over 100-cars long, whereas our passenger trains are only usually a maximum of five-cars long, so if you have a train going north and one going south, one of them has to go into a siding (a side track to allow other trains to pass). The sidings are not long enough to accommodate a lengthy freight train and that means unfortunately we usually get shunted into the siding until a freight train goes by."
But Ian Thomson, director of communications for Canadian National, says that only happens when the trains are late.
"Passenger trains, when they are in service windows (on time), have the right-of way," Thompson says.
Prasad alleges that Canadian National, the company interested in obtaining rights to Ontario Northland Transportation Commission in Cochrane, has not provided reasonable service for passenger trains.
Keith Heller, senior vice-president of eastern operations for Canadian National, says he understands Prasad's concerns.
"The bottom line is that there has been a rough winter," Heller explains.
With the winter snow and temperatures below normal in some areas there have been some problems with the tracks that have detained all train companies, says Heller. However, not everything can be blamed on the weather, he says.
"The government-owned ONR has delivered the trains to us consistently late, but we haven't done a great job either," Heller explains. " (Cochrane townspeople) are critical of our winter performance on the trains and justifiably so, it hasn't been very good."
Until the government decides to sell Ontario Northland to Canadian National there will be hiccups, he adds. Firstly, because Canadian National does not have full access to the Northland schedule and secondly because the Cochrane railway infrastructure requires revamping, Heller says.
"If the government decided to award us the deal to acquire the ONTC then the Northlander would operate entirely under CN direction," Heller says.
But Prasad worries the company is trying to ruin the passenger service to make way for a freight service that is more fruitful.
However, Heller says his company wants to make a go of the passenger service.
"We are committed to the communities to invest millions in the Northlander. We will work real hard to drive ridership up. We are going to be involved with the community."
If the communities surrounding the Cochrane area are willing to make use of the rail passenger service then "we will make the investment, we will have the equipment (trains) and we will bring cars up to what is acceptable to everyone," Heller says. "We are willing to work with the community to set schedules that people want. We are willing to make a go of this."
According to Heller, the proposed contract would require a subsidy from the government.
"We proposed in our contract the Northlander would have subsidies much lower than they are today," Heller says.
The status on the proposed deal to acquire the Ontario Northland railway is still in negotiations, says Kelly Krist, communications advisor for Minister Jim Wilson. Earlier in October Ontario Northland Transportation Commission went into exclusive negotiations where some recommendations were tabled. The Canadian National team looked at those items and a further report has been submitted back to the government, Krist says. No time limit has been set.
"We are still looking at the report and we will do what is best for Northern Ontario," Krist says.